A number of people have complained that those of us outraged by the implications and unwitting effects of Bryan Stascavage’s article have failed to utilize the proper channels and methods to express our positions.
Here’s a contribution.
I should say, though, that I add nothing new to this discourse. The allegedly more “militant” voices among us have made compelling and reasoned cases. Some of us, perhaps, paid more attention to the rhetoric than to written content of the arguments. Rhetoric and content are certainly related, but they are not one and the same. Moreover, I do not disparage militancy, and that is not to say I condone violence or harassment. And that certainly isn’t an insult to those of us who have been accused of being hostile. I understand that some words were exchanged with Stascavage, but I cannot speak to that particular instance because I wasn’t there. I do not speak for anyone other than myself and I need mention that my argument rests, for the most part, with Mr. Stascavage’s original case.
Mr. Stascavage’s article meditates on the effects that Black Lives Matter (BLM) has arguably had on the treatment of police officers. While acknowledging that BLM is drawing attention to an important issue, Stascavage wonders whether the movement has actually “achieved anything positive,” whether those of us who sympathize with the goals of BLM have created an environment that jeopardizes the safety of law enforcement officials. Stascavage cites a number of specific and general acts of violence. He refers, for instance, to the case of a reporter and cameraman who were murdered by a former network employee who attacked under the pretense of combatting racial oppression. Stascavage concedes that this man was not a representative of BLM. Still, he is concerned that BLM may have created “the conditions of the more extreme or mentally disturbed individuals to commit atrocities.”
BLM is a nonviolent organization and anyone who performs violence in its name has, by definition, dis-identified with it. The movement emerged as a response to, and is not the cause of, the conditions that have prompted a handful of individuals to perform un-strategic acts of violence. BLM may have fueled discontent with the police and the workings of a white supremacist state, but that does not mean it has condoned violence. This may not be what Stascavage intended to say, but his statement lends itself to this interpretation. That black people have been the targets of state-sanctioned violence for as long as the United States has existed is what has angered people. That police officers have routinely accosted and murdered unarmed black civilians is what fueled anger against the police. This is not to say, of course, that all police abuse their power, but it does indicate that too many officers have gotten away with those abuses (a single case is one too many, by the way). Stascavage recognizes this and rightly so. It is difficult, though, to be courteous when it seems as if the nation has no vested interest in making things right. Otherwise, why would Americans need to be reminded that black lives matter?
That a number of people who sympathize with the BLM movement have, say, implied that they would be comfortable with violence against law enforcement officials is beyond the control of the organizers. In other words, the organizers who, by Stascavage’s estimation, ought to revisit the “drawing table” do not have absolute control over the thoughts or actions of the people who show up to rallies. Besides, the people who sympathize with the notion that Black Lives Matter have a right to their opinions and, I suspect, would be so inclined regardless of whether they explicitly identified with the movement.
BLM and the police are not the same kinds of organizations and, therefore, it makes no sense to speak of them as if they were. The latter is the state and the former is a container for people with a common goal that, at best, has state-tolerance. Considerable amounts of people (civilians, police officers, statesmen, and pundits alike) have gone, and are going, to great lengths to suggest that the movement condones violence, in order to delegitimize it. This assessment extends beyond the scope of Stascavage’s article. I am not saying that state-sanctioned groups of nondescript white men are secretly plotting violence against non-whites, at least not in overtly explicit ways. The law makes it incredibly easy, however, to attack black life and to attack those who protest such abuse. Those of us who are skeptical should consult a series of attacks on black activism (#COINTELPRO) that have historically used the same tactics (I’ll spare you all the history lesson, though. The information is out there and I’ve done enough affective labor as it is).
Riots occur when the outlets for allegedly ‘civil’ discourse have been exhausted to no effect. Therefore, rioting is an understandable consequence of explicit and implicit state violence (Those of us high on punditry should now take a step back and breathe). Riots are expressions of grief and rage that, contrary to what hegemonic narratives would have us believe, play a critical role in social change. People riot because they understand that the United States has always valued property over black life. If property is threatened, then the state will make concessions to protect its property (pundit-sympathizers should now exhale). Those of you ready to accuse me of condoning riots should understand that my feelings toward riots resemble my feelings toward gravity.
What I find particularly concerning about the afterlife of Stascavage’s article, though, is that it has degenerated into a discourse on free speech. Like the notion of ‘race-relations,’ the idea of free speech presupposes that there exists a space without a particular political slant in which groups of people differentiated by class, race, gender, etc. can debate on equal terms. I write this as someone who believes that there is no such thing as neutral, no such thing as safe space. In this respect, I am certain, I am not alone. The concept of free speech to which so many of us cling is a flattering one, but I don’t think it represents reality. Those of us who are skeptical should think about the less explicit kinds of silencing that affect people of color, women, people who identify as queer, etc.
While I agree that Stascavage has a right to his opinion, I think it is particularly misinformed and, perhaps, logically bankrupt. Therefore, while I think his voice should not be silenced, his position should not be upheld as a reasonable critique of BLM. I have argued that BLM emerged in response to the conditions which Stascavage suspects the movement may have created. In addition, what I find concerning is that his argument has lent itself to tragic misreading. Plenty of people (more than an allegedly progressive nation would care to admit) use the critique of BLM as a smokescreen for their prejudice. Whether some people do this knowingly does not matter. As I see it, anyone who espouses prejudice and acts on it hurts themselves and other people, albeit distinctly.
Now, some of us might say that my critique of Stascavage’s article is similar to his critique of BLM. Stascavage’s article lends itself to conservative interpretations with which he may not agree; these misreadings potentially spell trouble for those of us interested in combatting racial oppression. By comparison, the professed goals of BLM, some might say, lend themselves to misinterpretations that could generate hostility against police. Again, we should remember that BLM is not the state, casualties among police do not at all mirror the casualties of black men at the hands of law enforcement, and, more importantly, that there is no war on police. No amount of rhetoric posing as reason can change that. That officers are killed on the job is tragic, but the overwhelming majority of officers killed on the job are not by any stretch of the imagination killed by BLM sympathizers. This is one detail that has been overwhelmingly downplayed, if not ignored.
Supporting BLM and denouncing violence against police officers are not mutually exclusive notions. I understand that that is not Stascavage’s argument, but I think some readers need to be reminded. Also, critiquing BLM does not automatically make you a racist, though there are such things as racist critiques. More importantly, I am very skeptical of the idea that Wesleyan is not a petri dish of intolerant, liberal politics. The trope of the unyieldingly liberal, and therefore fascist, college is a myth. That a sizable amount of the student body attended the BLM march last year does not suggest that the student body espouses homogenous racial politics. Wesleyan may be a progressive place, but even that we should take with a grain of salt. Universities, nations, and institutions of all stripes tend to take credit for the pained labor of a minority of its members. Wesleyan constantly prides itself on its attention to “social justice”, but we should remember that movements retrospectively labeled as such usually combat the same institutions that later uphold them. That campus was brimming with tension in the days before Thanksgiving should be enough to dispel notions of Wesleyan’s exceptionalism. The range of inputs on mediums such as Yik-Yak, the ACB, or the comments on some of the articles testify to the range and depth of hostility. And, no, this is not the exclusive domain of trolls.
That being said, there are some conversations that happen on campus that don’t receive attention in other places. That fact, however, has nothing to do with a moment of common ‘enlightenment’ in which the statistical category of Community (or the Nation) had a critical change of heart. Most people were not supporters of MLK, Gandhi, Captain Planet, or any of the figures conveniently invoked when outrage begins spilling over into alternative forms of action that do not foreclose the possibility of violence. Furthermore, American understanding of activism’s nuance is so lacking that discourse on important figures is incredibly thin, male-centered, and deviously simple.
Writing this, I am well aware that there will be misreadings, that some people will hinge onto specific sentences, phrases, and words and distort what I have argued. I would encourage those of us who put words to paper, those of us who aspire to be writers, and those of us interested in engaging critically to read and reread.
That is merely a suggestion, however. I do not plead nor do I appeal.
Though I lack optimism, I remain hopeful. Discourse will not completely enact social change, but if we are to have discourses then we should engage in them critically. Those of us unwittingly stilted by our antiseptically ‘enlightened’ lay humanism should sober up on our black, feminist, and queer epistemologies. All for the sake of ‘balanced’ discussion, right? The masturbatory ruminations of our allegedly lettered, misleadingly ‘universal’, and adolescently articulate commanders in chief should not muddle the fact that plenty of Americans need to be reminded that black lives matter. This applies to students, faculty, and post-modern ‘scholars’ at Wes alike. For many of us history is, in fact, what hurts and, as Dave Chappelle would remind us, the pages of history are often stuck together. The unintended trajectory of Stascavage’s article is a good measure, indeed, of how far some of us have come.
Gallardo is a member of the Class of 2016.